In our December email series, we briefly touched on the Tennessee Valley Presbytery’s partnership with Parakaleo. Mary Lu Strawbridge (a Parakaleo-trained leader in our presbytery) and Denine Blevins (Parakaleo executive director) offered further insight into how this ministry provides support for women in our church plants, especially planting pastors’ wives.
While working in administrative support for both a church planting organization and a church plant, Denine realized that she needed support herself, particularly as a woman. While she loved her calling, it led to burnout. Denine said, “It was the most exciting thing I’ve ever done in ministry, and one of the most exhausting things. I realized I couldn’t do it any longer when I woke up one day and couldn’t get out of bed.”
Denine joined a Parakaleo group and began to realize that her idolization of ministry had prevented her from creating healthy boundaries between work and life–mentally, emotionally, or time-wise. Noting that her pastor was also her boss, she says, “I was pastoring myself.” While this dual relationship impacts women who work for churches, Denine says that it impacts pastors’ wives ten times more.
Of being in Parakaleo, she says, “It gave me a way of accessing the reality of the gospel that I hadn’t experienced anywhere else. I learned to take these truths and apply them to real-life situations. It helped me learn how to navigate living in the already but not yet.”
Because the PCA primarily has male leaders, the denomination naturally focuses on supporting men. Until Parakaleo, there was no denomination-wide focus on supporting women in ministry roles. Parakaleo was founded in 2005 to fill this need when Shari Thomas was commissioned by Mission to North America to investigate why church-planting wives were experiencing significant burnout.
Parakaleo started first with church planters’ wives in the PCA, then expanded to all women in ministry in the PCA, then to other denominations and countries, but to this day, church planting wives are a central focus of the ministry.
Parakaleo believes that church planting is important, church planting is hard, and churches are planted by men and women. Research has shown that the majority of unbelievers come to Christ through church plants, and Denine says, “If we’re really about gospel advancement, we should be about the health of both the men and women in church plants. How do we (men and women) collaborate to be on mission?”
She explains that church plants have limited people, space, and resources, which can lead to a pressure cooker environment. Parakaleo hopes to provide prevention for burnout–instead of intervention when it’s too late.
As to why the emotional and spiritual well-being of women matters to the body of believers as a whole, Mary Lu explains, “It’s monumental because of the role she plays as the wife to her husband and as an example to other women watching her. If the wife goes down, the church goes down.”
Mary Lu currently leads two Chattanooga-area Parakaleo groups of current and former pastors’ wives from multiple denominations. In the next few years, she plans to recruit future Parakaleo leaders to begin the training process. She notes that Knoxville is another location in our presbytery that might benefit from and have a desire for a Parakaleo group.
Parakaleo-trained leaders like Mary Lu have the freedom to shape Parakaleo groups for their particular context. Denine explains that these leaders have room to decide if their group should be women in general or specifically church-planting wives.
Reflecting on her current groups, Mary Lu says, “One woman who was a church-planting spouse in another denomination came to our group with lots of wounds. Being a part of Parakaleo has been life-giving for her as she is able to express the feeling of burnout and church hurt. The tools she’s picked up in Parakaleo have been very life-giving.”
Feedback from women in Parakaleo consistently centers on feeling cared for and normalizing the unique challenges that go along with being women who serve in church planting. While the tools and modules taught in Parakaleo apply to any context, the significance lies in experiencing camaraderie and understanding during the unique season of starting a church.
Imagining specific situations that pastors’ wives encounter, Denine asked, “When you see one of the elders heading your way after the service, and you know it’s because your husband preached in jeans that day, how do you respond lovingly and truthfully in that moment, and how does that experience impact your heart for the rest of the day? And what if you don’t respond lovingly in that moment? How does the gospel apply to that?”
Mary Lu recalls a situation when she was a young church-planting spouse. “I had on a denim shirt with a black skirt, and a lady told me that she’d never seen a pastor’s wife wear denim to church before. The shame, the guilt, the disapproval that I felt in that moment…I would say that it didn’t drastically impact me, yet I still remember it to this day. I also remember it being a big deal that I didn’t play the piano. For whatever reason, people feel like because you’re their pastor’s wife, they can say anything to you, like carte blanche, like you can’t get mad at them.”
Parakaleo groups work through scenarios like these together, always focusing on how the gospel applies to each and every moment and frees women from the weight of people’s expectations. Mary Lu says, “Women explain a specific situation they’re going through, and we walk their heart through the scenario. It really is just learning the gospel over and over and deeply realizing that it’s not dependent on us; it’s all up to God.”